Karen, an international aid worker with the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), squats in front of the broad beans she has planted in her vegetable garden in the suburbs of London. Her hands are muddied and the rain is torrential, but the glint in her eyes leaves no doubt about her satisfaction. ‘The seeds for these beans came from a seed exchange event I went to last year. The truth is that they have grown much better than the hybrid ones I bought. And they are free!’ she exclaims.
Meanwhile, a world away in Chillavi, a remote corner of Cochabamba, Bolivia, indigenous leaders working with local NGO CENDA (Communication and Andean Development Centre), are writing an open letter to their President to protest at the successful lobbying of agro businesses to introduce GM technologies in the country, in spite of constitutional promises to the contrary.
Fifty per cent of the food produced in the world does not make it to a plate. In Britain we waste one third of all the food we buy, a pattern replicated in most wealthy countries
CENDA has been working for decades with indigenous peoples in the region. They use traditional knowledge and practices to constantly improve seed and native plant varieties in an effort to increase production by adapting their crops to climate change and making them pest resistant. This helps them put real, nutritious food on everyone’s table in their community and beyond.
Seeds lie at the heart of the complex system of food production and global hunger. Here is the problem in a nutshell: currently the world produces more than enough food for everyone in the planet. Yet, according to the UN World Food Programme, close to one billion people will go hungry to bed tonight and 2.6 million children under the age of five will die this year of malnutrition. At the same time, 50 per cent of the food produced in the world does not make it to a plate. In Britain we waste one third of all the food we buy, a pattern replicated in most wealthy countries.
Working with nature
One could argue that fair distribution of existing food production is one of the most important issues for tackling global hunger. Yet if you were to believe the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) or Monsanto – to name but one of the major global biotechnology firms – the solution has to include technological improvements such as ‘improved’ seeds (GM or not) or old-fashioned economic growth that will allow the poor to buy all the food that they cannot currently afford. The two arguments are often linked; when GM technologies are suggested, it is generally to plant cash crops as part of economic growth agendas.
Food campaigners around the world – whether indigenous peoples in Bolivia or activists in London – are mobilizing in search of an alternative means of ensuring that global hunger is eradicated. They are linked by a shared belief in the importance of working with nature to create localized food systems that empower small-scale producers. They constitute the food sovereignty movement and are suspicious of the pleas from corporate power that theirs is a benign contribution to the challenges posed by global hunger.
Food sovereignty is about changing political and economic structures that keep people unable to feed themselves
The rejection of the idea that we can treat food like any other commodity has fundamental implications for the role of big agribusinesses in global chains of food production. As the critique goes, agribusinesses impose unsustainable farming practices and reduce biodiversity in favour of intensive monoculture that is in turn more vulnerable to disease. In addition, agribusinesses are accused of squeezing out small-scale farmers worldwide, directly contributing to creating the poverty which causes so many to die of hunger.
Take the example of seeds. Big corporations like Monsanto develop and patent hybrid and GM seeds that, they claim, improve yields by producing drought and pest-resistant plants. According to their own website, ‘Monsanto patents many of the seed varieties we develop. Patents are necessary to ensure that we are paid for our products and for all the investments we put into developing these products.’ Furthermore, ‘the vast majority of farmers understand and appreciate our research and are willing to pay for our inventions and the value they provide’.
For the food sovereignty movement however, this is simply not true. They argue that the food system is failing the poorest people because the balance of power is tipped in favour of global companies. In the case of seeds, ‘just 10 such giant firms control 73 per cent of the global market share,’ says Hope Shand from Seeds Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing native and rare garden seeds.
In London, the conversation with Karen turns to people power and the deep roots of the global hunger crisis. ‘You see, images of starving children on our TVs might generate charity but this is unlikely to deal with the structural reasons of persistent global hunger.’ Food sovereignty is about changing political and economic structures that keep people unable to feed themselves. ‘I have indigenous peoples to thank for what they can teach us about land management and seed improvement,’ says Karen as she removes weeds from the potato patch.
It seems then, that part of the answer to the future challenges we face as a species might lie in looking back to our ancestral knowledge. Meanwhile, back in Bolivia, an article in CENDA’s newsletter explains in the clearest possible terms the contradiction between growing food for profit or for eating. ‘They tell us that if we use GM seeds, we can grow soya for export and make a lot of money. When will they understand that you cannot eat money?’